Take a look at the picture below. I am pretty sure that most of you will recognize this as a famous landmark of Bhutan. The Paro Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan is one hiking destination that almost every traveler has on their bucket list. And rightly so, when you see the precarious manner in which it hangs off a cliff. Plenty of questions might be running through your head – on how it was built and why it is so famous. I too had the same and to answer them, I undertook this hike to the Tiger’s Nest.
Tiger’s Nest is the other name that the Paro Taktsang Monastery is known as. From the time I had seen this picture, I have been dreaming of clicking one myself. I had read almost all that I could about this fascinating place and there were two aspects that had me desperate to get here – one the elusive monastery whose interiors are not available anywhere on the web and two – the moderate hiking trail itself. Naturally, when we finalized Bhutan as our family holiday destination this year, the hike to Paro Taktsang was one uncompromisable activity. I just had to do it to satisfy the Indiana Jones in me! And boy, was it an adventure!
History of the Paro Taktsang Monastery
One of the key figures in Bhutan Buddhism is Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche. Believed to have been born from a Lotus, he is the Buddha responsible for bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. He is said to have several manifestations. Of these, one of them involves him traveling on the back of a tigress from Tibet to this mountain in the 8th century. The tigress was a form that his consort Yeshe Tsogyal took as she accompanied him here. Local lore says that he flew here to one of the caves and meditated for over 8 years. Some even say that he destroyed one of the Tiger Demons and hence, the name of the monastery – Taktsang, which in the local language means Tiger’s Nest.
Guru Rinpoche’s caves were used by the other Buddhist Monks from Tibet and over time, a structure was constructed around these caves. However, it was only in the 1690s that the first temple around these caves was built by the then king of Bhutan – Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye. Since then the temple has faced at least two fires and quite a bit, including the paintings, were destroyed, The current structure is restored post the last fire of 1998 with the help of the Bhutan Government. And that is what you get to see today.
Stage one of the Tiger’s Nest Hike
As always, the best for the last – the Paro Taktsang Hike was scheduled for the last day of our Bhutan trip. All of us – including my minx daughter and my hubby were up bright and early to get this going. Our driver cum guide – Suchit, had told us many a tale of how long it normally took to get to the top and how tough it was. However, we were unperturbed and quite confident of making it well in time. With a quick visit to the ticket counter, and a rental of a stick (just in case required), we were off. Suchit was a little concerned about leaving us to do this on our own but then, he hadn’t heard of this Indiana Jones. 😉
Ash, my hubby decided to time the hike as his personal challenge, the little minx followed the suit and well, who am I to say no! Off we were, racing the mules who were carrying some of the other hikers to the midpoint. The two rangers continued the steep climb while the Indiana Jones (a.k.a Yours Truly) kept pace but stopped here and there to take pictures. How could I not – for right at the start was a small spring that turned the prayer wheel with its force.
Steady progress was being made by the party until suddenly, someone familiar came up beside me. Suchit was a tad bit worried that we might need help and decided to check on us. Only to reach us panting for we had far out-stripped his expected pace. Given that were are already at the end of Stage one, he decided to go back and leave us to our fate 😉
With burning calf muscles – (yes, I ain’t Superwoman) before I knew it, I had reached the first mark of our ascent – the drinking station with a view of the Paro Taktsang. It seemed far yet not so!
The Half-Way Mark to Paro Taktsang
If you thought I had crossed Stage One, nope not yet. The water station was just one-fourth of the journey. With those few seconds of a photo capture of the monastery, I raced ahead to get closer to my target. The path was quite steep and uneven but that is what frankly made it fun. Ask my Pilates instructor – she knows that I thrive on that burning pain that your muscles give you. Hey – not weird! It’s the pain of progress 😉
I passed by another set of prayer wheels and drinking station before I reached the halfway point of Paro Taktsang. I could see many of the other climbers heave a sigh of relief as they saw the cafe to re-energize themselves. Ponies and Mules made their way to the drinking station after their riders got off them. This is the point beyond which the creatures are not allowed. Everyone becomes equal from now for everyone has to climb from hereon.
Stage Two: The Taktsang Monastery Viewpoint
Running high on adrenaline, I chose not to take a break and continue my hike. The terrain got steeper and within a few minutes, I realized that I was the only one climbing. Ash and the minx had already gone ahead while the ones with me and behind me were still at the cafe. As rugged the path was, it was still well marked and that was a guiding force for me.
Cheerful prayer flags encouraged me to not lose pace. Small signboards here and there, kept me positive about my progress. And then, there were beautiful trees and flowers, amidst which I could see my target. After some point, the trail straightens up and the climbing almost ceases. Before I knew it, I had already reached the iconic viewpoint of Paro Taktsang. In fact, now that I think of it, the 2nd stage of my climb was the easiest – though I am sure a lot of you might not agree!
Stage Three: At the doorstep of Paro Taktsang
The joy of capturing this with my camera was the moment that I ticked off one destination from my travel bucket list. I knew then that it would not be long before I was at the doorstep of the famed monastery. However, this viewpoint is just an illusion of you being at the monastery. Yet another descent and ascend awaited me.
I could see Ash and my minx climbing the final staircase to Paro Taktsang as I descended the viewpoint. Somehow the sight of them and the monastery had bolstered my energy. Literally skipping down two steps, I reached this gorgeous sight of red rhododendrons around a misty waterfall. In some ways, this is exactly how the entrance to a fairytale castle is described.
At this point, remember to glance up the cliff for a hidden cave. This is where the Tigress Consort – Yeshe Tsogyal meditated. I did not know that you could climb here else, I might have attempted it. I got to know this after I had returned to base. :-(. In any case, at that point, ignorance was bliss and finally, I climbed the last leg of stairs to reach the famed Tiger’s Nest.
Unraveling the secrets of Paro Taktsang
United with my family, I celebrated my hike with a bottle of water. I was desperate for some as I did not have any water along the way. Not owing to adrenaline but for my silly mistake of leaving my bottle in Ash’s backpack. 😉 Having deposited our belongings, including my camera at the entrance, we entered the Paro Taktsang Monastery.
Since there are no pictures available of the interiors, you will have to rely on your imagination of how it is from inside. There are over 8 shrines at various levels in the temple. If you thought that your hike was done by reaching the monastery, let me take some sarcastic pleasure in sharing that there are a few more stairs to climb. Each of these shrines is at different levels and while the climb is not much, given the longer hike, your muscles will protest.
The main shrine here is devoted to Guru Rinpoche. At this shrine, remember to glance to your left for a decorated door. This leads to the cave where he is said to have meditated. However, except for once a year during the Paro festival, this door is closed.
The guides here explain the significance of each idol and shrine in detail and if you are like me, you will love to sponge it all in. There are some interesting rituals and beliefs of Paro Taktsang Monastery that you will come across while you visit the many shrines. Like this one, where you have a huge crevice on the floor of one of the shrines. It is fenced and covered. When you glance down, you will see lots of money around a single hole far below. Belief has it that if you are pure at heart, then any money that you throw in (only currency notes), will go into that groove.
Did I try it? Nope. For I had left my wallet in the locker 😉 But it was amusing seeing the others try it out as they cheated on how they threw their notes. Some rolled it up, some aimed it and well, some just tried again and again!
Another interesting thing that I learned was that the mountain on which the Taktsang Monastery was built resembled the face of Guru Rinpoche. There is an old photo of the mountain at the monastery where you can see it for yourself. I made a mental note to check it when I reached the base later.
The one thing that I absolutely loved was finding a cave, where you needed to descend the narrow crevices using a wooden ladder. It was three levels down and quite precarious. Remember to at least check it out even if you don’t want to attempt exploring it. Me? Of course, I did try it out! 😉
Journey Back to the base
With a few moments of just enjoying the view from high up there, we started our journey back to the base. It felt good to pick up the pace as we climbed down the first flight of staircase until we reached past the waterfall where you had to ascend again. I think I gave my muscles too much of rest for they were now protesting hard. This is exactly why on my ascent I did not take a break. The lousy muscles always get spoilt with even a small rest.
In any case, we pushed through that last ascent and sped down. It was fun as we let ourselves loose on the slopes. I kept encouraging the other climbers to push through their last mile. It felt good to see their tired face break into a smile when I said – “Go on, just a little more. You are almost there!“.
One of the things about hikes is that you make friends along the way. At the end of the day, the same pain and peer encouragement bond you with strangers. I made many friends that day including these young men from Australia. It was fun catching up with them and sharing a laugh or two as the guide explained the rituals of the land. I am sure none of us will forget each other.
The half-way point came quicker than anticipated and bidding goodbye to our Aussie Friends, we continued our descent. However, this is always room for some Drama. We were followed by a lone pony, who meant no harm. However, my minx is terrified of animals. She refused to go past the pony and so I took the lead. Strange but funny that the pony – I call him Frisky, decided to obey me. He stopped when I did and followed me when I started. At some point, he overtook me and then waited till I caught up. Call it a freak chance or as I would like to believe – a bond!
Frisky stayed with me till I reached the first prayer wheel by the spring. I bid him goodbye as I had finally come back to the ground. We had done it – the mighty venture to the Iconic Tiger’s Nest in 3 hours (plus one of exploring the monastery). We all turned back and gazed high up to where we had been. And yes, we did see the face of Paro Taktsang. I wonder if you can too?
- Paro has an international airport and the Paro Taktsang Monastery is just a half an hour ride from the airport. Any cab will take you there.
- October to May is the best season for this trek.
- Dress in layers as it can get pretty cold at that height. Wear long-sleeved tops and full-length bottoms as you will be entering a religious place once at the peak. Hiking shoes are highly recommended.
- The Paro Taktsang Monastery is at an elevation of 3120m above sea level. It is advisable to wait for a day or so after you arrive in Paro to do this hike – so that you can avoid AMS by acclimatizing yourselves. More on AMS in this post.
- The entire hike is just around 7 km each way but owing to the elevation, you will need to keep aside anything between 5 to 7 hours for the trip.
- The ticket window opens at 8 am every day but shuts down by 12 pm. The entrance fees here is 500 Nu for all non-Bhutanese nationals. If you are on a government prescribed package, then this fee is already paid by you. The Government prescribed package is the Bhutan tourist package that every foreign national (except Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldivians) have to pay for. More on this coming up in my Bhutan Travel Guide.
- A guide will be a part of your hike if you are on the Bhutan tourist package. For the others, like us, you can get a group guide at the monastery. They do not ask for any fees but a small tip would be a good gesture.
- The trail is quite steep and you might need a walking stick if you are not used to climbing inclines. You can get this on hire for 50 Nu at the entrance of the monastery.
- There are restrooms at the start and near the cafe
- Drinking water is available at regular intervals.
- One can have lunch or snacks at the mid-point cafe.
- It is best to start the trek at 8 am. Stick to a pace that you are comfortable with. It is not difficult. They say that the oldest person to have done this is a 92-year-old lady. Kids can also, manage this with a little help. We did see a lot of kids.
- Mules and Ponies are allowed only half way. I would recommend this only for smaller kids.
- At the base, you will find a lot of small make-shift shops selling Bhutanese handicrafts. The rates are quite reasonable.